[This originally appeared on www.moviewallas.com]
The French film STRANGER BY THE LAKE (L’INCONNU DU LAC) examines the extremes of blinding desire.
Here is another film to file under ‘this too is what cinema can be’. It is an oddity of a film that will alienate some viewers and confound others, but there is no denying that there just hasn’t been another movie like this. Its creates its own unique category, and how often can you say that about cinema these days? And that category would be films that are channeling Hitchcock, are rigidly naturalistic in their aesthetic, and feature copious nudity.
The film is set entirely in and around a stretch of sandy beach by a lake in rural France that is popular amongst gay men. The thirty something Frank (Pierre Deladonchamps) is spending his summer days by the water, slowly building a friendship with the middle-aged Henri while developing a serious attraction for Michel, a man that everyone seems to be lusting after. One evening by the lake, Frank witnesses what appears to be a murder at the hands of no other than Michel. The film tracks the events that unfold after that. And you slowly realize that the movie title may have a second meaning; the goings-on indeed get stranger by the lake. And what we have is a sort of reversed parallax to Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, in which James Stewart becomes obsessed with a murder he suspects may have occurred. In STRANGER BY THE LAKE, Frank resolutely refuses to act on the murder he know has occurred.
Lets get the obvious out of the way. Yes, this film features more skin than what the typical filmgoer is accustomed to. Think of it as the male equivalent of BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, the other Cannes film from last year that got a lot of ink by virtue of its unwaveringly explicit sex scenes between the two female leads. Well, STRANGER BY THE LAKE does its part for gender equality with its male characters. The two films are vastly different in tone, scope, and aesthetic, but in a way both movies reflect on the consequences of an unfathomed attraction that is absolute in the destruction it wreaks.
The defining aspect of STRANGER BY THE LAKE is its naturalistic construct. The film appears to have been shot using only natural light. Also the filming rigidly eschews obvious camera movements; most scenes play out with a patiently stationary camera. Note the single take of more than five minutes during which the said murder (involving the drowning of a man at the lake) occurs; it is a marvel of lighting, choreography and pacing. The naturalistic vibe extends to the dialog which save for the very last act has a calm, studiedly casual cadence. The conversations between Frank and Henri are so authentic in their hazy, lilted rhythms that it makes you wish the film had been only a study of these two characters. Most commendable of all is the extension of the naturalism to the physical acts on screen; all of the sexual content miraculously bypasses the prurient and is presented with a shrugged matter of factness. If you are uncomfortable with its frankness, the shame rests with the viewer because the film disavows it.
The power of the film comes from its ability to render believable a protagonist so drawn to the object of his desire that he overlooks the fact that this man is a murderer. Does Frank truly doubt what he saw? And then use that doubt as an excuse to not report the crime. And to even actively contribute to protecting the murderer. We hear all the time about rational people who willingly partner with criminals to abet in murder. We know of women who write love letters to imprisoned criminals. We read about the kidnapped who eventually help their kidnappers on their spree of crime. The irony with the Frank character in THE STRANGER BY THE LAKE is that he is suffering from Stockholm syndrome even though he is not physically captive. However his attraction to Michel is so strong, so consuming, that he might as well be literally imprisoned by Michel. To the film’s credit it makes it obvious that there isn’t anything mentally disturbed about Frank. Frank is not delusional; he is doing what he does because he sees no other option. Few films explore the pathology of a person who walks with eyes open into a potentially fatal situation – by virtue of a desire so blindingly absolute that reason cannot permeate through it.
This is a fascinating concept, and the reason for the very dark places the film gets to in its final act. But even then, the last act of the movie plays out in such a tangent to the gentle natural rhythms of the earlier part, that it becomes an altogether other film. Which is a shame because the film up until that time had been one of uncharacteristically sharp character observations. Even then, STRANGER BY THE LAKE is such a strange brew, such an untasted concoction, that most film lovers will not be able to resist it. And they should not.
STRANGER BY THE LAKE is currently streaming live on Netflix.